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Parti-coloured Bear
An illustration from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica - where Giant Panda is still described as Parti-coloured Bear
Sources tell us that Giant Panda may have acquired the name Panda from the Nepalese for Red Panda - nigalya ponya – which means eater of bamboo. After already using the panda name with Red Panda, around the 1900’s zoologists decided that it and an animal then known as Mottled or Parti-coloured Bear, which both had bamboo related diets, must be members of the same family. This led to the bear getting its name changed to Giant Panda.

However, the term Panda also has a surprising relationship to the name of the first western naturalist to describe the Giant Panda  – the French missionary and naturalist Father Armand David, otherwise commonly known as Pere David. Stationed in China from the 1860’s, Pere David’s first contact with Giant Panda came in 1869 after receiving a skin from a hunter. What is interesting regarding the naming is that panda is in fact an acronym of Pere Armand David – P AN DA.

Nepalese ponya or French missionary panda? On the evidence it’s probably the Nepalese name that wins through since, apparently, the term panda had already been used in a report from Nepal for Red Panda in 1825 – predating the Pere David discovery by 34 years. So, it seems the acronym – Pere Armand David/ PANDA – is just a strange coincidence.
Pere David's Rock Squirrel
Pere David during his stay in China
Today science doesn’t link Giant and Red Panda as close relatives – although both species, despite their dependance on a mainly vegetarian diet, are classed as carnivores. Red Pandas are now in a family of their own, while Giant Pandas are bamboo eating bears. The only close relationship they have is a similar distribution, habitat choice and diet. However Red Panda, with a varied diet, is less of a specialist bamboo eater and has a wider distribution.

And the Chinese name for Panda? That is xiong mao or Bear Cat. Giant being Large Bear Cat and Red the Small Bear Cat.